How To Handle Child Expenses
Separated parents play a very large role in their children's development. Besides making decisions without the input of the other parent, there is also the worry that there may be conflict between parents over values and decisions about spending.
As a family lawyer and financial professional we hear the worries about one parent being able to outspend the other and how that upsets the delicate balance after divorce. Often the weekday parent feels overwhelmed just keeping the household functioning. Between work, grocery shopping, meals, laundry, and homework, life can feel like a treadmill.
On the other side there is the "weekend" parent who gets the benefits of a looser schedule. For some of these moms and dads, they feel compelled to make up for lost time. They experience loneliness being away from their kids all week. They harbor fears of losing their primary place with their children. They may resort to retail therapy as a comfort. It feels good to be able to buy things for others.
The cycle brings resentment and overspending. The desire to have a real conversation about what is happening may be blocked by old emotions. The more time passes, the farther apart a divorced couple grows. Eventually it is just too much work to make the effort to rekindle their communications tools. In many cases, divorced couples manage to keep it civil so long as the topics are focused on their kids and not each other. Spending and values around money in the other household crosses that boundary and for most, feels like a return to the old battles.
Often the problem stems from a lack of clarity over how family resources will be managed after divorce. There are legal guidelines for support. With money flowing from one household to the other, both parents retreat to their corners. The person who pays feels their obligation has been met. The parent who receives the money has many expenses that are not covered by the payment they receive. The paying parent does not want to have to justify the "extras" they choose to provide their kids.
The guidelines for child support were created for the average of all families -- not for any particular family.
One solution is to try and take a longer view of family expenses. Kids need food and heat and transportation. They also need bikes and computers and birthday presents. Someone has to pay for lessons and activities, sports equipment, and school trips. Without a good road map the kids are likely to get caught in the middle.
Some parents need to get back to the drawing board to create a good operating plan to ensure their kids get what they need in a financially responsible way. Having a discussion after divorce about money issues is no easy task. Luckily, there is a guide that can be useful. The authors of Difficult Conversations suggest the following:
Don't argue over facts, talk about what you perceive
"We might not be able to agree about why you bought the computer, but I was left with the impression that you felt that you could make the decision to buy it without asking me first."
Stay away from blame and focus on joint responsibility
"If we put some time towards making a budget for extra expenses for our kids, I think we could make better decisions as a family."
Don't try to figure out what was intended, talk about the impact
"When you buy expensive items for the children it sets up expectations that I can't meet."
Remember the goal is to distribute the responsibilities for what the kids really need between the households. The object is to make sure the kids know what to expect and to have a sense of fair play about having their needs met. And above all -- the example set by both parents is a learning opportunity for kids to understand good money management and cooperation.
Using this guide can also help parents have discussions with their kids about money and spending. Teaching kids about money is not only part of parenting but it also provides a life skill that they may not learn elsewhere.